Robert Armstrong is familiar to old movie buffs for his case-hardened, rapid fire vocal delivery in typical roles as promotional schemers-agents-managers-and hard-boiled officials of many sorts in over 160 films. His father owned a small and profitable flotilla of boats for use on Lake Michigan, but hearing the Siren call of the gold fields in late 19th century Alaska, he packed up the family and headed west. A typical staging place to start north was in Washington State where the family settled in Seatt... more
Robert Armstrong is familiar to old movie buffs for his case-hardened, rapid fire vocal delivery in typical roles as promotional schemers-agents-managers-and hard-boiled officials of many sorts in over 160 films. His father owned a small and profitable flotilla of boats for use on Lake Michigan, but hearing the Siren call of the gold fields in late 19th century Alaska, he packed up the family and headed west. A typical staging place to start north was in Washington State where the family settled in Seattle. He spent a short hitch in the infantry during World War I. Armstrong originally decided to go into law and started its study at the University of Washington. But it was not too long-and perhaps influenced by his uncle the playwright and producer Paul Armstrong - before Armstrong decided that he had a gift for acting and preferred to follow that path. Also out west was another future, very familiar Hollywood character actor, James Gleason, known as just Jimmy, who, along with working for various playhouses in California and Oregon, was heir to his parents' stock company which toured across the US. Armstrong joined Gleason's company and returned with them to New York and started from the bottom up learning the craft of acting. After moving on to leading man roles, he received the prime part in Gleason's own play "Is Zat So?" (1925-1926), a particularly successful of several plays he had written (he also did directing and producing on Broadway into 1928).Hollywood scouts were watching, and Armstrong found himself with a film contract. About halfway through some ten films in which he appeared in 1928 alone, Armstrong was able to give voice in the short sound sequences of early mono films. His take-charge, off-the-back teeth delivery moved him into the roles that would make him one of the busiest character men in Hollywood and right along side him in several of his early 1930s features was old boss Jimmy Gleason. It was in 1932 that Armstrong became acquainted with an ambitious and adventurous pair of new Hollywood movie makers. Both World War I fliers, big game hunters and animal trappers, and partners in high adventure documentaries, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack had found a friend, in rising producer David O. Selznick, who brought them on board at RKO, particularly Cooper as production idea man. With Schoedsack, the camera expert, as director and Cooper as an associate producer they planned the first of a string of horror-tinged adventure movies, The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Armstrong got in his usual wisecrack lines but from a less dimensioned character with an early demise; the film centered on Joel McCrea and still young silent screen veteran Fay Wray. Cooper saw much of himself in Armstrong's general personality and wanted him for the next film which Cooper had been turning over for several years dealing with legends of giant apes from his jungle experiences.King Kong (1933) would put Armstrong at stage center, as big time promoter Carl Denham (very much Cooper himself) - it would do a lot for co-star Wray as well. With Copper and Schoedsack co-directing and Willis H. O'Brien heading up a visual effects team supporting his for-the-time astounding animated miniature sequences, the film was a treasure trove for B status RKO, scrapping for more respect. It was Armstrong's defining moment for similar leading man and second lead roles to come through the 1930s - and, of course, his moment of sure type casting. The Kong sequel, The Son of Kong (1933), followed immediately with the same production team and, though no where as boffo, showcased another Armstrong strength-a great sense of comedic timing already evident in previous films. The Cooper/Schoedsack team got in one more for 1933 with Armstrong as an uncommon romantic lead in Blind Adventure (1933), fast-paced adventure but oft uneven. All the studios wanted him, and what followed was a flood of usually good, crowd-pleasing, if B movie roles, among the better being in: Palooka (1934) and 'G' Men (1935). With a full menu of adventure yarns and colorful cop and military roles, at the end of the decade Armstrong even played one of America's great folk heroes - Jim Bowie - in Man of Conquest (1939).Armstrong got more of the same in the decade of World War II, if starting to slip down the cast list, with some variety, playing a Nazi agent in the spoof My Favorite Spy (1942) and - with his narrow eye visage - of all things - a Japanese colonel (named Tojo) with former co-star James Cagney in the escapist romp Blood on the Sun (1945). Finally, Cooper-gorillas still on his mind-came calling again for his story of Mighty Joe Young (1949), about mid-course in his association with John Ford and his Argosy Pictures venture under the wing of RKO. Armstrong was again a reincarnation of Denham as Max O'Hara, fast talking promoter, looking for a sensation in "Darkest Africa". The Ford touch is perhaps seen in the cowboys who go along with young Ben Johnson as romantic lead to - say the least - enthusiastic Terry Moore with her pet gorilla Joe (abut half as big as King Kong but definitely no ordinary gorilla as promoted in the film). It is a great little movie - with a red-tinted fire scene recalling the silents. It was a Saturday matinee favorite for at least a decade later (this writer enjoyed it as his first movie theater adventure as a small child).Armstrong increasingly went to the small screen through the 1950s. He was a familiar face on most of the TV playhouse programs of the period and did many of the episodic oaters and crime shows of the period. He received a great send-up as a guest of Red Skelton's variety show when the oft giggling host asked him, "Say, did you ever get that monkey off that building?" Armstrong liked keeping busy and helping friends. One of the latter was Cooper-still promoting as his alter ego Carl Denham in his old age. The two passed away within 24 hours of one another in April of 1973.